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Undergrad Forums: It’s All About the Process
Megan Sever

Sidebars:
Student publishing prospects
Spotlight on Keck
Spotlight on Argonne


Last spring, Dan Hyslop presented his research findings on Tyrannosaurus bite marks to a crowd of his peers. For more than a year, he had been studying fossilized teeth impressions on a rib bone from the Hell Creek Formation in Montana to see why these bite marks differed from most known specimens. But Hyslop is not a full-time researcher or even a graduate student — he is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, majoring in geology.

Working in the specimen preparation room at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s geology museum, undergraduate student Dan Hyslop uses a microscope to inspect the fine, serrated ridges along the sides of a Tyrannosaurus rex tooth. Hyslop is researching two different patterns of bite marks found on the rib bones of a hadrosaur in the museum’s collection. He presented his research about why he believes both markings are unique to the bite of a carnivorous T. rex at a recent regional paleontology conference that he helped to organize. Photo by Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Hyslop’s presentation was part of an undergraduate research forum he and other motivated geology majors created last year. Approximately 60 students from more than 10 Midwestern universities attended the conference and presented their research, covering the gamut of paleontology topics, from paleobiology and paleobotany to big dinosaurs. “The focus of this symposium was to share our research findings, but also to practice presenting our research in front of peers and professional geologists,” Hyslop says.

The UW-Madison regional conference is not alone. Every year, more opportunities arise for undergraduate students to conduct and present original research. Traditionally, university research has centered more around graduate students, with undergrads often left to fend for themselves. Most undergraduate geoscience majors complete research theses or projects, but the research process often stops there, without reaching a larger audience. Presentation is an aspect of the research process that merits more attention, says Beth Palmer, coordinator of the Keck Geology Consortium, based at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and undergrads may not be aware of the many forums at which they can present their research.

Campus events

Many colleges and universities offer some sort of forum for undergrads to present research results on campus, says Cathy Manduca, the director of the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton. Many of these campus-sponsored events are excellent, low-cost places for students to present their research, she says.

Caltech’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program, for example, is modeled after the grant-seeking process and is designed to introduce students to the entire research project, from proposal to research or field work to final presentation, says Carolyn Ash, the director of the Student-Faculty Programs Office that coordinates SURF. Each year, more than 500 undergrads in all fields of science participate in the program, which begins with the students selecting a mentor with whom they would like to work.

The students collaborate with mentors to develop research projects and then submit project proposals, which are reviewed by a faculty committee. If the projects are chosen, the students are awarded fellowships to perform their research over 10 weeks in the summer. At the conclusion of their fellowships, the students write final technical papers, Ash says, and prepare and give oral presentations at the two-day SURF symposium on campus. Around 20 students are performing their research this year in the geological and planetary sciences division of Caltech (with more at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory or doing interdisciplinary projects).

With SURF and programs like it, students “gain personal insight about the kinds of careers they want to pursue and whether or not they want to go to graduate school,” Ash says. “They develop laboratory skills,” she says, and also develop technical communication skills that will help in graduate school or the working world.

Campus-sponsored events such as SURF are great ways for students to learn how to articulate their work, says Lori Bettison-Varga, a geologist at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, and the chair of the geosciences division of the Council on Undergraduate Research. But those events are localized, with the students rarely having the chance to interact with peers or professors outside of their own institutions, she says, something that can be very valuable. “And it would benefit the students even more to be able to present their research to the geoscience community,” Bettison-Varga says, like the UW-Madison paleontology forum.

Bigger fish

The inspiration for the UW-Madison conference came from a program run by students in the University of California system called CalPaleo, which invites graduate and undergraduate paleontology students from around the state to a weekend symposium to present their original research in a format similar to national professional geoscience meetings. CalPaleo began as a way for paleontology graduate students to share their research, says Heather Moffat, a paleontologist and director of education at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, Calif., but has expanded to include undergrads. The program provides a wonderful opportunity for networking and collaborating with students at other universities who are doing similar paleontological research, says Moffat, who attended the conference while at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Riverside, and helped host the event at the Alf Museum two years ago.

University of Wisconsin-Madison undergrads, Summer Ostrowski, Adam Behlke and Dan Hyslop (from bottom to top), prepare to hoist a block uphill that contains the skeletal remains of a small dinosaur called Thescelosaurus. Last spring, the students organized an undergraduate research forum for area schools. Courtesy of Dan Hyslop.


The idea of collaborating with and meeting students and professors from other schools is what piqued Hyslop’s interest. To coordinate the UW-Madison event, the conference’s undergraduate chairs first sent e-mails to 130 paleontology professors at 80 different schools in 14 states around the Midwest, inviting them to attend and encourage their students to participate. The organizers also advertised at the national Geological Society of America (GSA) and Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meetings. In the end, 60 participants gathered in Madison in early March to discuss paleontology research. From the evaluations, everyone “seemed pretty happy with the experience. We certainly hope it will be an annual event,” says Hyslop, who will be finishing up his senior year this fall and plans to be involved in the conference next spring.

“This effort took phenomenal initiative on the part of the undergraduate students,” said Richard Slaughter, a geologist who directs the UW-Madison geology museum, in a press release. The students “put together a first-rate conference,” he said.

Elsewhere around the country, undergraduate geology students have other chances to present their research to peers and professors, Bettison-Varga says. At another California regional conference, the Southern California Conference on Undergraduate Research (SCCUR), undergrads at Southern California schools share original research in all fields, including the sciences and humanities, through presentations and posters.

At Occidental College in Los Angeles, geology majors are required to prepare at least a poster for SCCUR, says Don Prothero, a geology professor at Occidental. A small, liberal arts program, Occidental’s geology department also regularly sends its students to CalPaleo and national meetings such as the GSA annual meeting. Students need the experience of conducting independent research and learning how to communicate their findings in oral and written form, Prothero says, and that is part of what these conferences offer.

One of Prothero’s students, Joshua Ludtke, who graduated from Occidental this year, spent his senior year reexamining mammal fossils at the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He found one new species, which he presented at SCCUR. But his work did not stop there. He went on to present his findings at the GSA annual meeting and to publish in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin.

The biggest fish

While perhaps not a common occurrence, some undergrads are able to present at national conferences. For Ludtke, who is headed to San Diego State University for graduate school this fall, it was a memorable experience. “It’s one thing to do undergrad research and present it to the people in your department,” he says, “but it’s definitely helpful to meet and speak with people who are doing similar research and who really understand what you’re talking about.”

Timothy Holst, a geology professor at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, says these national meetings are great in that they expose students to “a lot of geology,” and open the door for professional geologists to provide feedback on the students’ projects. GSA estimates that at least 25 percent of presenters at its annual meeting are students (though most are probably graduate students), with regional meetings boasting an even greater percentage of student presenters.

Part of the mandate of the geosciences division of the Council on Undergraduate Research is to sponsor undergraduate presentations at regional GSA meetings, Bettison-Varga says. At each regional meeting, she says, the council organizes an entire session devoted to undergraduate research, in addition to encouraging students to present in the appropriate categories. “It’s been really popular,” she says, and they hope to expand the program. “These regional meetings are a great format for undergrads to showcase their research and meet professors” from graduate schools, she says.

Another forum for undergrads, also on the national level, is broader-based conferences. For example, the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) organizes an annual conference to showcase undergraduate research from all academic disciplines. More than 2,000 students from around the country present their research at this conference, including roughly 50 geoscience students each year, says Holst, who served as chair of the NCUR board for the past year. Students participating in the symposium submit detailed abstracts and present their findings in the same manner as professional meetings.

One advantage of participating in this conference, Holst says, is that students can get good feedback from students and faculty both inside and outside their disciplines. For example, he recalls, one of his geology students got “a great suggestion for his research project from a chemist” from a different school. Regardless of which venue students choose to present their work, Holst says he thinks that all faculty members should encourage their research students to make that effort.

Faculty role

Although Ludtke says that he was not intimidated by presenting in front of professional geologists, some students may be, Manduca says. Mentors need to be aware that these students may need extra encouragement and support to showcase their work.

“Part of the responsibility of mentoring is to encourage our students to present their research and get it out there in the community,” Bettison-Varga says. “As faculty members, of course we love students who take the initiative, but the students often need guidance, and that’s exactly what we’re there for.”

Some of the most useful skills professors can give to their students, Prothero says, are teaching them how to conduct research and how to present it. At Occidental, geology majors are required to defend their senior research projects in both writing and an oral presentation, similar to a master’s defense. It is “extremely useful to our students,” he says, “whether they go on to grad school, where they do more independent research, or to consulting geology where they do independent work, write lots of reports and give presentations.”

But, Prothero points out, Occidental, Carleton and Wooster are all undergraduate institutions. “We have no grad students, so [the professors here] have made our undergrads perform like grad students,” he says. At larger institutions, Prothero says, the graduate students are often the bigger focus, so undergraduate research might be encouraged less; the onus to find research and presentation opportunities lies more with the student.

While liberal arts schools have long treated undergraduate students as “real researchers,” there has been a big push lately for reinvigorating undergraduate research everywhere, Bettison-Varga says. It seems, she says, that universities of all types are now providing their undergrads the chance to “do real research, instead of just being lab rats or doing paperwork.”

And from the students’ perspective, learning and practicing the entire research process is what it’s all about, Hyslop says. Every little bit helps in graduate school or the workforce. Presentation is critical, says Keck’s Palmer. “If a student can’t present, then the quality of the research doesn’t matter.” This holds for graduate school as well as in a career, she says.

Eventually, Hyslop says, he would like to go to graduate school and then get “a research position somewhere, in some sort of vertebrate paleontology,” although he doesn’t yet know where. In the meantime, he is finishing up his senior thesis and submitting an abstract for the GSA annual meeting this fall, with hopes, he says, of presenting his research to yet a wider audience.

Student publishing prospects

While settings for undergraduate students to present their research have been expanding in recent years, there don't seem to be as many options for students to publish their research, says Cathy Manduca, director of the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Professors should encourage and work with students to publish in professional peer-reviewed journals, she says, but another option exists as well: publishing in the undergraduate peer-reviewed publications, such as the Journal of Young Investigators (JYI), a science journal written by undergrads for undergrads.

JYI began publishing undergraduate papers on original research in science, math and engineering in 1997. The online journal, which has been growing in participation and readership since then, now publishes articles monthly on high-level undergraduate research from around the world. JYI's 120 current staff members are all undergraduate students, representing more than 30 different universities.

The articles published in JYI undergo a similar process to those submitted to any scientific journal, says Selby Cull, a senior planetary geology major at Hampshire College in Massachusetts and acting editor-in-chief of JYI. Students submit full research papers, complete with a detailed abstract and any figures, which are then sent out to two student editors in the appropriate field. The students peer-review the papers with the assistance of their faculty mentors and then send the papers back to the journal with edits and a suggestion of whether or not to publish the papers, Cull says. Faculty mentors are included, she says, because "we recognize that students aren't experts in the fields, at least yet," and the professors provide guidance on both the topic of the paper as well as the peer-review process. Assuming the paper is chosen, the author makes any necessary edits and JYI publishes the papers online.

What is remarkable about the experience of working with JYI from both the perspective of the editors and the authors, Cull says, is the opportunity to expand the students' horizons and to hone their research and communication skills. "The publication process, such as through JYI, is great for students to learn," says Lori Bettison-Varga, a geologist at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, and the chair of the geosciences division of the Council on Undergraduate Research. "We need to encourage this, but also to encourage our students to publish in the geoscience journals as well — to complete the science cycle."

Indeed, says Timothy Holst, a geologist at the University of Minnesota, Duluth and former chair of the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research: "I think all faculty should encourage their research students to make presentations at whatever venue makes most sense for them" — and beyond that, he says, to publish in peer-reviewed journals when the research warrants it.

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For more on undergraduate publishing, see below.

 

Spotlight on Keck

Over the last 17 years, “enriching undergraduate education through development of high-quality research experiences” has been the goal of the Keck Geology Consortium, which comprises the geology departments of 12 small, liberal arts schools with a focus on undergraduate education. A nationwide format that focuses solely on geology, the Keck program coordinates research projects between undergrad geoscience students and professors from many different schools all over the world.

Undergraduate students study tilefish mounds off the West Central Coast of Cozumel, Mexico, one of the world’s premier diving spots, as part of a 2003-2004 Keck Geology Consortium project. The project involved eight students from seven different colleges and three professors from two different schools. Courtesy of Keck Geology Consortium.


Although the consortium schools organize the program and many of those colleges’ students and faculty participate, more than 900 undergraduate students from 83 different schools have participated in the program. Students from any university can apply to a Keck project, which involves an intense summer of field work culminating in students presenting their research results at the annual Keck Geology Symposium. In addition to the presentations, students publish their research papers in the official record of the symposium; many students, with their mentoring faculty, publish their research results in geoscience publications as well, says Lori Bettison-Varga, a geology professor at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, and the chair of the geosciences division of the Council on Undergraduate Research. For example, this year, one group of Keck students and faculty is publishing its research results in a Geological Society of America special publication, she says.

Aaron Shear, a geologist for an environmental consulting firm and a graduate of Wooster who participated in a Keck project in Jamaica, says his participation in Keck research improved his writing and oral skills. Additionally, he says, “it was very satisfying to apply textbook theory and classroom lectures” in the field. “Many times it is difficult to envision how certain techniques you acquire in school can actually be used,” he says, and having that hands-on experience is quite beneficial.

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Spotlight on Argonne

Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., holds a two-day symposium every fall to enrich the undergraduate experience by allowing students to showcase their undergraduate research accomplishments. Students from any college can apply to participate in the symposium, so long as they are undergraduates doing research in science, engineering or math, says Linda Phaire-Washington, a biomedical scientist and senior program leader in Argonne's educational programs division. Many of the 130 undergrads who present their research are participants in Argonne's summer research internships, although, she says, the majority of presenters are simply students from the Midwest who are searching for a forum to present their research and hobnob with industry folks and faculty from other schools.
The program, she says, offers "a wonderful way for undergrads to crystallize their thoughts" and to learn how to present and publish their research findings — something "quite important" for students to learn for the future, Phaire-Washington says.

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Sever is a staff writer at Geotimes.

Links:

NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates
Keck Geology Consortium
National Conferences for Undergraduate Research
Journal of Young Investigators
UW Midwest Symposium of Student Paleontologic Research
Southern California Conference on Undergraduate Research
Argonne National Laboratory Education Programs

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